Rhodes as a Naval Power

Plan of the shipsheds of the military port of Rhodes: those to the west are the width suitable for larger triremes and quadriremes, but the eastern slips are narrower and presumably intended for lighter craft like tribemioliae with which Rhodes was closely associated.

The ships rated higher than ‘ten’ seem not to have been used for ship-to-ship combat, so an additional explanation must be sought for their design. The use of ships as fighting platforms to attack city and harbour defences, for example by Demetrius I Poliorcetes against Rhodes in 305 (Diod. Sic. 20.85–8), suggests that the very large polyremes may have been designed with this function in mind. Demetrius’ fleet of 500 ships was likely to have been deployed against the coastal cities of Asia Minor, had he not been ousted from Macedon by Pyrrhus in 287. In this respect, the largest polyremes are analogous to the very large siege towers built for Demetrius’ attacks on Salamis and Rhodes in 306 and 305 respectively.

By no means all the ships used in the naval warfare of this period were triremes or polyremes. The Rhodian navy contained a substantial number of vessels of a type known as tribemioliae, which means something like ‘three and a half’. This ship was probably a variation of the trireme, or ‘three’. The Rhodian tribemioliae seem to have had a crew of 144, as compared to an Athenian trireme which had 200. It seems that about 120 of the crew were oarsmen, compared to the 170 used on the trireme. It is most likely that the reduction was effected by having fewer men on the lowest level, enabling the ships to be narrower towards the bows and stern than a trireme, thus compensating for the loss of oar power with a sleeker shape. As they also carried fewer marines and sailors, they would have been significantly cheaper to operate.

The various Macedonian generals who fought over all or part of Alexander’s empire were gifted with vast ambitions, enormous funds and manpower resources, plus access to the timber supplies of Cilicia, Syria, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Macedonia. Hence they were able to build substantial fleets of increasingly large ships. Antigonus Monophthalmus established three shipbuilding yards in Phoenicia, one in Cilicia and another on Rhodes to create the ships for his contest with Ptolemy I Soter. These facilities produced an impressive number of ships in the period 314–302, so many that Antigonus had nearly 400 warships, plus at least 100 transports.

Smaller political entities like the Achaean and the Aetolian Leagues, or the island of Rhodes, did not attempt to operate large fleets. In 191–190 the Rhodians played a significant part in the naval conflict between Rome and her allies and Antiochus III, but the largest Rhodian fleet assembled consisted of only thirty-two ‘fours’ and four triremes (Livy 37.22–3). The Rhodians had a good supply of experienced sailors, marines and naval officers, as well as well-trained oarsmen. It is likely that naval service was required of all young men with full or partial Rhodian citizenship, but even these reserves had to be supplemented by foreign oarsmen and sailors.


John Coates, Member, on 10 May 2004

The speaker reminded his audience that the emphasis of his talk would be on naval power rather than navies, naval bases, ships and men. Sea power may be conceived, he said, as having two purposes; to guard one’s own trade and use of the sea , or to deny its use to somebody else. In modern times for example, the British navy has been predominantly a sea-use navy, whereas the German and up to Napoleonic times, the French navies have been for sea denial. The means and scope of both use and denial obviously depend on the availability of finance, materials, men and techniques and the political will to provide these.

Until the arrival of aircraft and satellites finding a ship or fleet at sea out of sight of land was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. From a ship the visual horizon is 5 to 13 miles distant. Sea battles have mostly taken place therefore near land, with the added advantages of not being far from a base and near supplies including fresh water. Finally we have to remember that ancient mariners needed shelter in bad weather. At this time warships had large crews, sometimes rowing hard if the wind did not serve, and the temperature may be high. It has been estimated that as much as a ton of water could be consumed per 40 miles. Crews had to take more on board every two or three days.

The difficult terrain of Greece made transport by land laborious and expensive and all ancient trading and communication was by sea whenever that was possible (see map). Thousands of merchant ships that plied the coasts of the Mediterranean were an easy prey for pirates whose heavily manned oared ships were able to intercept them from their bases. Piracy was endemic throughout this period and sometimes was on a large scale (for a good account see Ormerod in book list below) necessitating major naval campaigns from time to time. The control of piracy may have absorbed more effort than surviving accounts suggest.

A common warship of the sixth century BC was the trieres or trireme, with 140 oars on three level, first developed a century earlier, possibly in Egypt (see diagram), which at today’s prices would cost £1m to build and four times that per year to man. It was swift enough to deal with pirates, though not superior in a ramming battle to the 50-oared pentacontes, which had oars on two levels. This latter cost about one quarter as much as a trireme The ram fitted to such vessels was a projecting timber structure built onto the bow, terminating in a cutting bronze casting.

Naval power played a significant part in the contest between the Greeks led by Athens and the Persian empire. After Marathon, the Athenians put their faith in ships and quickly built a sea-denial defensive fleet of 200 triremes. At the decisive battle of Salamis in 480 BC the Athenian admiral Themistocles successfully lured the Persians into narrow waters with a divided fleet, so that their numerical superiority was a handicap. Xerxes lost the command of the sea that he needed in order to supply his army and the abandonment of the Persian campaign followed. In the following fifty years Athens operated fleets in Egypt, Cyprus and Asia Minor, achieving that superiority, exercised through the Delian League, which according to Thucydides provoked the Peloponnesian War. At this time Athens built the Long Walls securing her connection with the port and naval base of Piraeus. In 433 BC Athens sent out 30 ships to support Corcyra (Corfu) in its confrontation with Corinth and her allies. This entailed a passage round the Peloponnese, taking about four days. The usual routine on such a passage was to moor the ships at a beach for the night, stern-to. The crew slept ashore guarded by ten hoplites and four archers, the complement of each ship. Before or at first light they would have a meal, embark, row or if the wind served sail, until noon. They would go ashore again during the heat of the day to fetch water, eat and rest until about 6 pm and then sail onward until nightfall, a routine that required a knowledge of a coastline and its inhabitants. For defensive purposes a squadron of, say, six ships by mustering a line of 60 hoplites and covering fire from 24 archers, was adequately protected.

In 430 BC there was an extraordinary action at the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. At the approach of the Athenian admiral Phormio, the Corinthians formed a defensive circle of triremes, bows outward. The Athenians circled them more and more tightly until, as expected, a wind sprang up and the crowded Corinthian ships lost formation in the choppy water. At a signal from Phormio the exposed ships were rammed and the battle won. This was naval mastery; good ships, well trained crews able to cope with choppy water and an astute admiral. These benefits were expensive and the taxes imposed by Athens in the name of the Delian League were resented. Pericles justified Athenian leadership by asking “how can (Peloponnesian) men achieve anything who are farmers? The fact is that sea power is a matter of skill….. and it is not possible to get practice in the odd moment when the chance occurs, but it is a full time occupation, leaving no moment for other things”. It is worth noting that there was no snobbishness about being an oarsman and only rarely did slaves row. On one occasion when there was a need for 1,000 hoplites to go to Lesbos, they simply rowed and sailed themselves there in triremes. Athenian supremacy was compromised by the failure of the expedition against Sicilian Syracuse in 415 BC when the ships needed to protect the camp located near the Great Harbour had to be afloat so long that their condition deteriorated. The Syracusans attacked them with success and this led a general defeat. Athens herself was besieged and fell in 405 BC.

In the 4th. century Carthage grew into a great trading and naval power and came into conflict with Syracuse over grain supplies. Heavier warships came into use now,some with more files of oarsmen, the best known of these is the ‘5’ (Greek: penteres or Latin: quinquereme), which had three rows of oars each with two oarsmen. The reason for this change remains obscure, but it may be that skilled oarsmen were harder to obtain. The heavier ships had rams but they would have been slower to manoeuvre and so the main emphasis was on boarding and later the discharge of missiles from catapults. Many ‘4’ s (teteres or quadriremes) were built (2 rows of double-manned oars) and they had the advantage of fitting into existing trireme slipways and sheds. No slipways for ‘5’s have been found possibly because their hulls were sheathed in lead as with merchant ships and they were kept afloat. A fresco at Pompeii suggests the existence of roofed-over docks. The meteoric career of Alexander the Great came to an end in 323 BC and in the ensuing contest for supremacy among his successors the naval wars involved large fleets of ‘4’s and ‘5’s. Nevertheless when in 307 BC the Macedonian fleet under Demetrios took on and defeated the Egyptians at Salamis (Famagusta in Cyprus), there were ‘6’s (hexeres or sexeremes) and ‘7’s (septerems) in his fleet as well as some triremes, though ‘5’s predominated. The consequent invasion of Egypt failed; delays, loss of ships through storms and reefs, followed by an unsuccessful landing gave Ptolemy time to mount an effective defence on land. In 305 BC Demetrios was involved in the siege of Rhodes, a rival naval power. On the larger ships of his fleet of 200 he mounted catapults and siege engines, but his warships and supply vessels suffered losses from the sorties of the swift, modified triremes of the Rhodians. These were called ‘trihemioliae’; in other words they possessed two and a half files of oarsmen. In 304 he accepted mediation and withdrew. In the Classical World naval operations distant from a home base were always hazardous.